E.H. Carr and the Realities of World Politics



Locarno, 1925



by Benjamin Schwarz


No book expounding a realist view of international politics has been more influential and controversial than E.H. Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: A Study in International Relations. Ever since its publication, barely two months after the start of the Second World War, this inventive, bracing work has been subject not merely to regular misinterpretation of its constituent arguments but to consistent misapprehension of its essential propositions. This is at least as much owing to the author’s faults as to those of his admittedly many unsympathetic and narrow-minded critics. Undeniably, no writer in what Carr dismissed as the intellectually flimsy field of international relations has equaled the equipoise of his sentences, the detached hauteur of his style, the nonchalance of his historical erudition, the icy clarity of his forensic critiques. (The classicist M.I. Finley said that Carr’s was “the most controlled intellect” that he’d ever encountered.) But The Twenty Years’ Crisis betrays both the urgency of its time—Carr wrote it between July 1938 and September 1939, certainly the most eventful span in the annals of European diplomacy—and the urgency of an author trying to work through and reconcile a tangle of new, half-developed ideas against a deadline imposed by history. The upshot is a book that makes excessive demands on its readers, a book that continues to yield novel and startling insights into the structure and workings of world politics, generally and, more important for our purposes here, into the sources and conduct of American foreign policy in the second decade of the 21st century.

Edward Hallet Carr wrote The Twenty Years’ Crisis during a peculiar interregnum in his career. Born in 1892 into the Victorian haute bourgeoisie, educated in classics at Merchant Taylors’ School and Trinity College, Cambridge, Carr spent 20 years at the Foreign Office, where he addressed problems arising from the Paris Peace Conference, the League of Nations, Anglo-French relations, and the resurgence of German power. While serving in the elite bureaucracy, he also managed to teach himself Russian and to write books on Dostoyevsky, Bakunin, and Marx. He resigned from the Foreign Office in 1936 to take the chair in international relations at University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, one of three professorships in Britain in that emerging academic field.

During his six years at Aberystwyth he wrote The Twenty Years’ Crisis and five other books on world politics, as well as reams of journalism, much of which was devoted to his favorable appraisal—coolly realistic or power-worshipping, depending on one’s point of view—of the Chamberlain government’s appeasement policies toward Germany. After leaving Aberystwyth, Carr more or less renounced the academic study of international relations. (He advised those interested in the subject to study history instead; in 1961 he wrote his most widely read book, What is History?) From 1940 to 1946 he was the chief editorial writer on foreign affairs for The Times in London, where his appraisals of Soviet foreign policy—coolly realistic or power-worshipping, depending on one’s point of view—earned him the sobriquet the “Red Professor of Printing House Square.” He was appointed a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he devoted the bulk of the rest of his career to writing an at once minute and monumental—and coolly realistic or power-worshipping, depending on one’s point of view—14-volume history of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1929.

That Carr 61bfc64d4af9aefcea0b029b783a265ewrote The Twenty Years’ Crisis during his brief venture into the academic study of international relations helps account for some of its muddle and some of the confusion it has engendered. Carr set out to write a book not on world politics, nor on the history of recent international relations—he’d already written that book, International Relations Since the Peace Treaties, a bestseller, in 1937—but rather a far more recondite work that would analyze what he saw as the “new science” of the study and interpretation of international relations. In short, he intended the book to be a work of professional obligation, assessing the novel academic discipline in which he then found himself employed. He had wanted to call it Utopia and Reality: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, but his publisher, the future prime minister Harold Macmillan, knew that would be commercially poisonous, and Carr acceded reluctantly to the misleading title by which it is known. (Carr’s subtitle, which refers to the academic field of international relations, was retained, although the altered main title gave it a different spin.)

Of course, had the book been merely a study-of-a-field-of-study festooned with a deceptive heading, it would have made no impact outside academe. But Carr found himself writing a broad and powerful critique of the conduct of foreign policy, albeit a critique confusingly and somewhat sloppily embedded in a narrower work. That confusion, however, illuminates the contradictions that a realist approach to foreign policy must reconcile, and ironically clarifies America’s peculiar stance toward world politics.


The reason “the science of international politics” was “in its infancy,” Carr explained in the opening pages of The Twenty Years’ Crisis, was that, until the First World War, international politics wasn’t studied and theorized about, it was just done. Confined to ministries and general staffs, the conduct of foreign policy was impelled by the realities of power and national interest. The statesman’s task was to recognize “the irresistible strength of existing forces and the inevitable character of existing tendencies, and to insist that the highest wisdom lies in accepting, and adapting oneself to, these forces and these tendencies.” (There you have, in a nutshell, Carr’s definition of realism.)

Foreign policy could be carried out with discernment or with shortsightedness, subtly or clumsily, but these were matters of tactics and execution. And it was on tactics and execution, on success at discerning reality and adjusting policy to serve the national interest—not on grand visions or on the pursuit of the alleged causes of mankind—that foreign policy was assessed. Foreign policy might be complex, yet it was also workaday.

But, by a mechanism Carr never explicated in detail, the First World War introduced a new, utopian emphasis in the study—and, as we shall see, the conduct—of world politics. Hitherto, that study, to the extent that it existed at all, was limited to practitioners, who simply described and analyzed international politics as they existed. Now, however, in making international relations an academic pursuit, intellectuals were imposing, as was their wont, a purpose, a utopian direction, on the subject of their scrutiny. (Carr helpfully cites Marx—whose remorseless, materialist historical logic succumbed to his trite, millennialist vision of a future classless paradise, wholly unsupported by that logic—as an example of what he saw as intellectuals’ near-universal teleological temptation.) Statesmen had traditionally limited themselves to adroit maneuvering and tactical fine-tuning, and they had seen their uninspiring purpose as keeping afloat, as Michael Oakeshott would write in 1962, in “a boundless and bottomless sea [in which] there is neither harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting point nor appointed destination.”

By contrast, the intellectuals, who were intent on making the study of international relations a science, held that the proper aim of their subject should be to pursue global democracy, national self-determination, and free trade, and to stanch international aggression in order to realize “a just, comprehensive, and final settlement of the political ills of mankind”—which was how Carr summarized the international vision of Woodrow Wilson, whom Carr held up as “the most perfect modern example of the intellectual in politics.”

To the extent that intellectuals could be identified by their embrace of a utopian foreign policy, Wilson was really Carr’s only example of an intellectual in world politics. Yes, Carr held that a division had developed within the ranks of those who studied international relations between, on the one side, utopian intellectuals, and, on the other, realists, like himself, who were exposing the hollowness of the utopians’ ideas. But those who actually conducted foreign policy—those who had to respond to the realities of power and to pursue the apparently timeless dictates of national interest—were, according to Carr, realists by definition. Wilson was a crucial exception. And that exception, the thrust of Carr’s frequently fumbling and contradictory arguments suggested, pointed to a radical and dangerous transformation in world politics in which those realists ceased to act realistically.

Having set out to write a book on the scholarship (such as it was) of international relations, Carr very soon—on page 10, in fact—slackly conflated political thought and political practice, subjects that he held were in antithesis. For the remainder of The Twenty Years’ Crisis he would shift his focus and his scorn, often within the same paragraph, between those two opposite subjects. Not surprisingly, this created enormous confusion, as much within Carr’s arguments as in those of Carr’s detractors and champions. Nowhere is this clearer than in his lengthy discussion of what he characterized as nothing less than “the outstanding achievement of modern realism”—by which he meant not the realism of statesmen but the realism of academics like Carr himself, a realism that only developed in reaction to the utopian tendency of modern political thought. This achievement was the exposure of utopian aspirations and the policies advanced to achieve them as rooted, not in a priori ethical principles, but in specific state interests. With evident pride, Carr demonstrated that liberal internationalist shibboleths and norms were in fact the “concrete expressions of particular conditions and interests.” Global free trade, for example, was (and is) advanced as a selfless good by those powers that gain from it economically, politically, and militarily. Consistently, the weapons of the dominant powers (battleships, and, today, nuclear weapons) are enshrined in international agreements as defensive, while those of the weaker states that challenge the status quo (submarines, and today nuclear weapons) are condemned in utopian schemes as offensive and dastardly.

Carr was no crude debunker. He wasn’t interested in demonstrating utopianism’s failure to live up to its principles; he was intent on revealing the absence of “any absolute and disinterested standard for the conduct of international affairs.” In very effectively arguing that “‘international order’ and ‘international solidarity’ will always be slogans of those who feel strong enough to impose them on others,” Carr merely wished to show that “these supposedly absolute and universal principles were not principles at all, but the unconscious reflexions of national policy based on a particular interpretation of national interest at a particular time.”

Interpreters of The Twenty Years’ Crisis universally hold that its withering exposé of what Carr called “the hidden foundations of utopian theory” constituted what he himself believed to be “the realist indictment” of liberal internationalism. They are no eh-carrdoubt right, but they are not wholly right. Certainly, Carr imbued that exposé with contempt and striking acerbity—but, following Carr’s own logic, it’s really not clear why he did so. Exposing the woolly-headedness of woolly-headed and perhaps self-justifying theories, which are as abundant in globalist foreign-policy thinking today as they were in Carr’s time, may be satisfying and perhaps salutary. But such an exercise absolutely does not constitute a refutation of the wisdom of the policies that underlie those justifications. After all, if, as Carr contended, utopian theories are the weapons of state interests, then those theories, by disguising those interests, in fact further those interests—and hence they are entirely consistent with a realist foreign policy. Indeed, Carr praised the self-aware, sophisticated, and cynical approach Bismarck pursued in advocating that a statesman “cloak his country’s interest in the language of universal justice.” Following this logic, however, what is the difference between Wilson and Bismarck?

The answer, I think, lies in the passage quoted above. What troubled Carr wasn’t the idea that “universal principles” really just reflected national policies but that those principles had come to be absorbed and pursued unconsciously. In another passage, Carr alluded to “the conditioning of thought,” which was “necessarily a subconscious process,” by which “utopian statesmen” came to conflate in their own minds the national interest and universalist, utopian purposes. That assertion itself is, as we’ll see, significant for many reasons, not the least that, according to Carr’s very schema, “utopian statesmen”—a species he identified as preponderantly American—were an oxymoron: statesmen could never be utopian. If they were, they were not acting as statesmen.

Early in the book, Carr made an important point that illuminated this “unconscious process” but that he failed to develop and that in fact he contradicted in other sections: for all his repeated assertions about the real basis and intent of utopian foreign-policy ideals and schemes, in this passage he says those ideals and schemes were not “merely … the mechanical products of other facts.” Regardless of their ultimate foundations in concrete interests, they could take on a life of their own and thereby play “their own transforming role” in world politics.

Carr, then, wasn’t concerned that statesmen would mask their real interests in woolly-minded theories but that statesmen had actually assimilated those theories and were now conducting their foreign policies accordingly. Statesmen had come to actually believe that their states’ interests demanded the pursuit of the millennium.

As I read him, Carr identified America’s emergence as the key actor in global politics during the First World War as the catalyst for the process by which utopian schemes took on “their own transforming role.” This development led Carr to confound his analysis of theory and of practice because American foreign policy itself had come to be defined and determined not by any traditional conception of national interest but by an interlocking set of universalist, utopian theories. In a novel development in international affairs, Wilson, the professor of government as world leader, had, as Carr put it, “transplanted” liberalism’s “half-discarded nineteenth-century assumptions … to the almost virgin soil of international politics”—“virgin” because, while hitherto liberal ideals and theories may have disguised state interests, they had not actually defined those interests and motivated policy. To be sure, those ideals still served specific American interests, which was the reason they had taken root in the American political establishment in the first place. But what seems to have deeply troubled Carr about “this transplantation of democratic rationalism from the national to the international sphere” was that, by the “unconscious process” he had noted, those universalist ideals, unmoored from comprehensible, definable state interests, had become for American statesmen an end in themselves. This created a new world politics in which the restraints of realism no longer applied.


To grasp why Carr was so discomfited by this development, one must comprehend his understanding of the normal operation of world politics. Given that relations among states were governed by the realities of power, and that, owing to economic, technological, and demographic changes, the distribution of power regularly shifted among states, Carr understood that effecting “peaceful change” was “the fundamental problem … of international politics.” Carr certainly understood that states would jockey for security and advantage, and that, in a world of sovereign states, force or the threat of force was the ultima ratio in international politics. But Carr, the former diplomat, didn’t see international relations in the same anarchic and stark terms as do today’s “structural realist” political scientists. Statesmen, being rational, apprehended the costs of war, and although war could under certain circumstances advance national interests, its potentially catastrophic risks could never be discounted. Moreover, satisfied states recognized that both the dictates of power and the logic, to quote Burke, that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its own conservation” demanded that they seek to conciliate rising powers.

Sentiment and morality had no place in Carr’s understanding of world politics. To accept the realities of power and therefore to accept the spheres of influence and legitimate interests of great powers—and to pursue the pragmatic aim of reducing friction among the great powers—meant that most small states were in fact satellites and clients, and their claims ultimately counted for naught. But Carr also knew that, in a world in which the realities of power were frankly recognized, and thus in which great powers acknowledged each other’s interests—and in which conflicting interests between states, like conflicting interests between firms, were not fevered by moral significance—great powers would relate to each other on a businesslike basis. This international give-and-take was both bolstered by and helped engender a rough and contextualized understanding among the great powers of what was reasonable and legitimate—not in an abstract or absolute sense but in the pragmatic way that permits fierce business rivals to moderate and accede to demands and to reach deals.

A world politics defined by the realities of power, in which the great powers behaved realistically, inculcated its own cool, detached style, summed up nicely by Talleyrand’s admonition to his diplomats, “above all gentlemen, not too much zeal.” The very processes Wilson scorned and sought to banish from international politics—“arrangement or compromise or adjustment of interest”—directed the normal relations among the great powers. Rivals could cooperate on substantial areas of common interest and were in fact collaborators in such efforts to stabilize the international system as the Congresses of Vienna and Berlin. Balances of power—in which international equilibrium was maintained and policies were modified based on the ever-present possibility of force—somewhat paradoxically imposed restraint and moderation, as Arnold Wolfers would recognize when appraising their value in 1943: “Men with a conservative bent of mind need find nothing shocking … in the suggestion that all nations, including their own, should be restrained by counterpower and thereby be spared temptations as well as prevented from abusing their power.”


As the United States rose to global power, it imposed its utopianism upon the world, a development which, I believe, for Carr meant that international politics, no longer governed by the constraints of realism, was dominated by an all-embracing and inherently expansionist—really limitless—ideology. Carr identified what he called “the doctrine of the harmony of interest” as “the essential postulate of the utopian creed,” and one that had “become endemic in the United States.” Simply put, this was the conviction that the interests of the United States were the same as the interests of the rest of the world, and the maintenance of its supremacy was therefore a duty that America owed to mankind. This conviction, which had developed not from practice but from theory and aspiration, rejected the realist understanding that different states by definition have different interests, and that the fundamental task of a great power was to pursue its own interests, while seeking, for reasons of security and expediency, to accommodate the interests of other great powers. It also dictated that the United States pursue a specific and all but unprecedented role in world politics.

To illustrate this point, Carr quoted Wilson’s formula that America had been “founded for the benefit of humanity” and that “American principles, American policies … are the principles of mankind and must prevail.” That formula, of course, has become the only politically acceptable conception of America’s stance toward the world, and has been echoed by Democrats and Republicans, by liberals, and by those who call themselves conservative. It is echoed in the bipartisan mantra that America is the “Indispensable Nation” and in the belief that, as Dean Rusk explained, America “can be safe only to the extent that our total environment is safe.” George W. Bush embraced it in his enunciation that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Barack Obama has summoned it in invoking “America’s larger purpose in the world”; in declaring that America is “called to provide visionary leadership” in “battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good”; in asserting that America “has a direct national security interest” in having its economic and political beliefs take hold in foreign lands; in proclaiming that “the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people.”

This utopian belief in a “harmony of interests” confounds the job of seeking America’s security with a mission that takes in all of mankind. It thus lavishly expands America’s security interests—as the logic of NATO expansion and the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” demonstrate. It lends American foreign policy a self-righteous and overbearing crusading tone and style. More important, it also bestows upon that foreign policy a posture approximating paranoia, in which other states’ pursuit of their autonomous interests ipso facto makes them a threat. Hence Washington’s curious position that defines as a menace China’s strategic expansion in the face of the overwhelming superiority that the United States holds right up to the edge of the Asian mainland. And hence Washington’s equally curious, and equally earnest, conviction that the growth of China’s economic and military power threatens the East Asian strategic “balance,” when in fact that “balance” really means American hegemony. And hence Washington’s unequivocal and straight-faced stance that, as Vice President Biden declares, in pursuit of a just and moral world order, “we will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence,” without acknowledging—and, crucially, without even recognizing—the spheres of influence, historically unprecedented in their reach, that the United States itself claims.

I believe that Carr found this crusading worldview so disturbing because of its irrationality—it was an abstract proposition that had taken flight, unconnected to the restraining and moderating influence of concrete reality. It was also intrinsically expansionist and, for all its sincere dedication to moral theory, dangerously intolerant. It would dictate policies incomprehensible to traditional statecraft because those policies would be independent of any conventional conception of national interest. It would discern danger in the normal workings of international politics. It would demand conformity to an American-imposed global vision that was antithetical to a world composed of sovereign states. For the United States, it would perforce make the peripheral central.

Carr would certainly have welcomed America adopting a different conception of world politics—one, incidentally, in keeping with traditional American statecraft—such as that Walter Lippmann advocated in 1965:

A mature great power will make measured and limited use of its power. It will eschew the theory of a global and universal duty, which not only commits it to unending wars of intervention, but intoxicates its thinking with the illusion that it is a crusader for righteousness … I am in favor of learning to behave like a great power, of getting rid of the globalism, which would not only entangle us everywhere, but is based on the totally vain notion that if we do not set the world in order, no matter what the price, we cannot live in the world safely … In the real world, we shall have to learn to live as a great power which defends itself and makes its way among other great powers.


Although this piece is meant to praise The Twenty Years’ Crisis, not to bury it, one notorious aspect of the book that has threatened to discredit it, ever since its publication, must be addressed. Carr famously mounted a cogent defense of Britain’s appeasement policies toward Hitler’s Germany, a defense that history has revealed as wrong. An appraisal of that defense clears Carr of some—the most obvious—charges but will prompt his indictment on perhaps more serious ones.

To Carr, the growth of German power necessitated a British policy that accommodated the realities of German strength, a imgres-1policy that would not undermine vital British interests. It is entirely true, as was implicit in Carr’s position, that the aims Hitler pursued up to at least March 1939—the revival of German economic and military power, the end to the demilitarization of sovereign German territory, the reincorporation within the German state of territories shorn from it, the consolidation of a German sphere of influence in Central Europe—were largely in accord with the traditional goals of German foreign policy. Given the changing distribution of power in Europe, those same aims would have been pursued by any German statesman. (For what it’s worth, I don’t include the Anschluss with Austria, which Hitler effected, as one of those traditional goals, but there’s no question that the action enjoyed the overwhelming support of all the populations concerned.)

Furthermore, the potential intervening powers utterly lacked the domestic political support for using force or threatening to use force to oppose German ambitions. Not only would the voters in Britain and France not have permitted a war to oppose Hitler’s actions—a fact that only began to change when Germany absorbed the rump of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, six months after Munich—but not even the most vocal anti-appeasers, Churchill among them, called for war to forestall any German moves, including the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the Anschluss, and the Munich agreement. Indeed, as Carr well knew, the substantial debate between appeasers and anti-appeasers did not revolve around the use of force to stop Hitler nor the need for and intensity of rearmament. Rather, that debate concerned the question of whether the rearmament effort should focus on fighters or bombers, a debate in which, incidentally, the appeasers were proved right.

Were Hitler a normal German statesman, the argument Carr made in the first edition of The Twenty Years’ Crisis—but which he excised in the second, postwar, edition—is wholly defensible:

If the power relations in Europe in 1938 made it inevitable that Czecho-Slovakia should lose part of her territory, and eventually her independence, it was preferable (quite apart from any question of justice or injustice) that this should come about as the result of discussion round a table in Munich rather than as the result either of a war between the Great Powers or of a local war between Germany and Czecho-Slovakia.

But of course Hitler wasn’t a normal German statesman. Nazi Germany was not dangerous to Britain because it wished to achieve hegemony in Central Europe but because its foreign policy was animated, not by a calculated assessment of German national interests, but by a universal, apocalyptic, and, to use Carr’s very term, utopian worldview. That worldview—in its utter failure to adjust policy to global power realities, in its conviction that Germany’s security and well-being demanded that it quash all opposing ideologies and political systems, in its pursuit of a messianic vision at the expense of the national interest, in its willingness to court, indeed, in its embrace of, the risk of the apocalypse—was in every way the antithesis of realism. True, one could plausibly argue that this wasn’t clear to intelligent observers at the time Carr wrote The Twenty Years’ Crisis.  Indeed, the universal and apocalyptic nature of Nazi foreign policy only became plain after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.  But the utopian tendency should certainly already have been clear to Carr (as it was to nearly all independent-minded German generals).  After all, in the The Twenty Years’ Crisis not only does Carr display a sensitivity to the perils of utopianism generally, he acutely if haphazardly analyzes the particular upheaval in world politics attendant on a great power—the United States—pursuing policies actuated by an autonomous utopian ideology divorced from the checks imposed by realism. Leaving any considerations of morality aside, to maintain that what applied to Carr’s assessment of Wilsonian America’s utopianism should have also applied to Carr’s assessment of Nazi Germany’s is a colossal understatement.

In a review of The Twenty Years’ Crisis at the time of its original publication, the historian A.L. Rowse, a strenuous anti-appeaser, generously and correctly argued that the book’s defense of appeasement was “irrelevant” to its “general thesis.” That’s true as far as it goes, and in some ways I would go even further: the book’s analysis of realism and utopianism in fact supported the proposition that Nazi Germany was unappeasable. That Carr was blind to this provokes the reader to question his judgment, if not the clarity of his analysis. Of course, a reader’s confidence is already somewhat eroded by the book’s general muddle. The Twenty Years’ Crisis is not just a classic; it remains a fresh and exhilarating book. But although its force is conspicuous, its defects are flagrant.

One thought on “E.H. Carr and the Realities of World Politics

  1. Excellent review, Ben. But I wouldn’t characterize Carr so much in terms of Realist (as opposed to Sentimental Moralist) but more as pragmatic moral relativist, one who was (justifiably) concerned about the profoundly immoral, or at least amoral, effects an utopian, absolutist policy could have when put into practice. As you describe his arguments, he strikes me as being motivated by a different morality, not just the utilitarian view that utopianism is bound to fail: a moral position that recognizes legitimate difference, and seeks to accomodate it, rather than crush it. Not having read the book, I don’t know if I’m reading more into his arguments than they can support, so I pose this question: if a country had the overwhelming force necessary to impose and maintain its version of Pax Romana on the entire globe, would Carr have been okay with that, then? Given that his arguments against utopianism predate any events that would allow him to evaluate the success or failure of utopian policy, and that the arguments appear to be based on more abstract considerations, I suspect not.

    In his implied moral relativism, he was also ahead of his time, and more in the line of thinking of today’s cultural critics, especially in academia and the humanities. Funny to think how prescient he was about the two opposing extremes of moral thinking reigning in the US today.

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